It’s impossible to say if author P.L. Travers would have liked the second Disney film to feature her most beloved creation, the magical nanny Mary Poppins, any more than she liked the first. As documented in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, Travers disliked almost everything about what became one of Disney’s most cherished movies, 1964’s Mary Poppins. She hated the musical numbers, she hated the animated characters, she hated the changes Disney made to the Poppins character. If Saving Mr. Banks is to be believed, she hated the general whimsy of the picture. That’s the exact quality that has made it such an enduring piece of pop culture.
The new sequel Mary Poppins Returns – a project which Travers stymied for decades and her estate finally approved years after the author’s death – manages to conjure some of the whimsical magic of the original. But the movie also suffers from being over-plotted to within an inch of its life. It’s true that the original has a message, but it never becomes as overbearing as the one in Mary Poppins Returns. The actress portraying Poppins in the new film, Emily Blunt, also has the insurmountable task of living up to the iconic performance of Julie Andrews. Both of these factors make Mary Poppins Returns a shadow of the movie that it attempts so very hard to evoke.
The plot of the new film is set in 1935, 25 years after the events of Mary Poppins. Jane and Michael Banks, the children whose precocious help-wanted ad describing the perfect nanny caused Poppins to apply for the job, are grown. Michael now has his own children: John, Annabel, and Georgie. The four are grieving Michael’s wife, Kate, who died the previous year. They live in the house where Jane and Michael grew up, but Michael’s recent financial troubles precipitates Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (the same institution where Jane and Michael’s father worked) posting a foreclosure sign on the door as the movie begins.
Michael has until Friday to repay the mortgage on the house, or he loses it forever. Jane, who works as an activist for labor rights, reminds Michael that their father left a sizable number of shares in the bank to them. If only they can find the certificate for the shares, Michael can save their childhood home from repossession. In a frantic search for the certificate, he puts a box of childhood belongings on the curb as trash. Gusts of wind from an approaching storm blow a familiar kite out of the box, and Georgie chases it down, catching the string before it sails into the sky. A local lamplighter named Jack sees Georgie struggling with the kite. As he helps the boy, the kite descends from the storm clouds with Mary Poppins magically holding on tight.
The most pressing concern in the original Mary Poppins is getting George, Jane and Michael’s father, to soften his hard heart. Mr. Banks is a dour English businessman who puts his love of money and the patriarchal and imperial power structure above the happiness of his own family. The chaos Mary Poppins creates when she arrives on the Banks’ doorstep makes George realize the error of his ways. As satisfying as that story arc is, it almost works as a bookend on either side of almost two hours of movie-magic fantasy sequences. The sole purpose of those sequences is to dazzle the audience.
In Mary Poppins Returns, director Rob Marshall – who wrote the story with John DeLuca and David Magee – has the formula backwards of what made Mary Poppins a classic. His movie is 70% plot machinations and 30% whimsy. Marshall has his roots in musical productions on Broadway. He was recognized with multiple Tony nominations for his choreography on shows like Damn Yankees and Cabaret before transitioning to film musicals. His film adaptation of Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture, and he has directed other film musicals like Nine and Into the Woods.
Perhaps because of his background in theater, Mary Poppins Returns feels particularly stage bound, even more so than Mary Poppins. Each musical number stops the film down and locks it in place for the duration of the song. In fact, Marshall literally stages one of the song-and-dance routines; it takes place on a music hall stage the characters visit after they are transported into a world that exists on the surface of an antique china bowl.
The entire bowl sequence is a microcosm for what doesn’t work about the film. The Banks children are worried about losing their home, and they decide to sell the antique china bowl – one of their mother’s most valued possessions – to help raise money for the mortgage payment. The discussion becomes a fight when one of the children refuses to part with something that their mother loved. A tug-of-war ensues and the bowl crashes to the floor, becoming damaged in the process. In an attempt to repair it, Mary Poppins uses her magic to transport herself, the three children, and Jack onto the surface of the bowl, where an enchanted land exists.
The extended bowl sequence is analogous to the sidewalk drawing sequence in the original Mary Poppins. In that film, Mary Poppins, Jane, Michael, and her jack-of-all-trades friend Bert, who made the drawing, jump into the scene depicted in the sidewalk art and spend the afternoon exploring it. Both sequences feature the live-action characters interacting in a cartoon world with animated characters.
The sidewalk art scene in Mary Poppins feels expansive and boundless. During the scene, the characters have lunch served by penguins. They ride horses on a merry-go-round that break free and take them across the English countryside. While on the horses, they join a fox hunt, help save the poor fox, and eventually crash a horse race which Mary Poppins, naturally, wins. The bowl sequence in Mary Poppins Returns, in contrast, feels claustrophobic. Mary Poppins warns her charges to take care not to slip off the surface of the bowl. This leads to some unique and fantastic visuals, but they are saddled with a sense of confinement.
The big musical number in the bowl world (which takes place at the fictional Royal Doulton Music Hall) is also out of line with the child-like wonder of the original film. Composer Marc Shaiman, who worked on the songs for South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, delivers a risqué number with A Cover is Not the Book. Marshall stages the song as a bawdy cabaret act, making me wonder just who the target audience for this children’s film is.
There is also a villain in this cartoon world that mirrors the greedy bank manager who is determined to get his hands on the Banks family home. The cartoon villain, a greedy wolf who is similarly determined to get his hands on the Banks’ possessions, puts one of the children in mortal danger. The threat of death – and the existence of an evil villain at all – in what is supposed to be a fun and fantastical adventure left me scratching my head and disappointed.
There are elements of Mary Poppins Returns that manage to tap into the original. It’s hard to say if we’ll be singing the songs from this film in 50 years, the way we still sing A Spoonful of Sugar and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious today, but most of them are catchy and fun. The songs Underneath the Lovely London Sky, Can You Imagine That? and Trip a Little Light Fantastic are stand out examples. The dance sequence for Trip a Little Light Fantastic is particularly enjoyable and harkens back to the chimney sweep number from Mary Poppins.
Chimney sweeps bring me to the subject of performances in Mary Poppins Returns. The character Bert in Mary Poppins was a chimney sweep, in addition to many other trades, and he was memorably portrayed by the lovable Dick Van Dyke. In the new film, the character Jack, a lamplighter by trade, is closely correlated to the character Bert. Jack is brought to life by the equally lovable Lin-Manuel Miranda. Van Dyke’s risible cockney accent as Bert is a low point in Mary Poppins. Miranda’s attempt at the dialect, while still not entirely believable, is a little better.
Emily Blunt had the thankless job of trying to live up to the sainted Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Mary Poppins. Blunt is charming in her own way, and she achieves her own spin on the character, but it pales in comparison to Andrews’ performance. P.L. Travers might have despised what Disney did to her beloved character, and who knows if the new iteration would have made her any happier. The world, however, has embraced the 1964 film as a cultural touchstone. The new version, while having some of its own charms, decidedly doesn’t capture the magic of the original.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- The rather depressing plot mechanics of Mary Poppins Returns make what should be nothing but fun into somewhat of a slog. I felt every bit of the 130-minute run time, which is, admittedly, also a failing of the original (that film clocks in at 139 minutes).
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I feel like the review casts me as someone who reveres Mary Poppins, to the point that I would dismiss any other attempt at portraying the character. It’s a classic, and I do like it, although much of my admiration is tied up in nostalgia. As I noted above, it’s way too long, and I respect it more than I truly love it.
- There are divine throw-backs in Mary Poppins Returns to the original film. You can tell the animators used a lot of care to make the cartoon characters look and feel like the ones from Mary Poppins. They got the feel of London from the original just right, too.
- There is a story element late in the film involving Big Ben. This is the least whimsical part of the whole movie. It also makes no sense, considering how it’s resolved, especially because we know Mary Poppins can do anything.
- I wrote in the review that the lamplighter song, Trip a Little Light Fantastic, was good. It is, until a section that painfully explains cockney rhyming slang. That whole bit is rather awkward.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I saw this on opening night with Rach and two friends. It was a full house. The audience seemed into it, definitely more so than I was.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Earlier in the year we got a documentary about legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG took in the whole breadth of Ginsburg’s life from her childhood to the present. Now we’re getting a fiction film based on one of The Notorious RBG’s biggest accomplishments. On the Basis of Sex tells the story of Ginsburg’s landmark gender discrimination case, which brought her in front of the Supreme Court long before she (or any women, for that matter) had any hope of serving as a member.